América de Cali are the South American continental also-rans. They lost three successive Copa Libertadores finals in the 1980s and four in total. But the drugs barons who financed their success in getting there are now the cause of the club’s demise. Henry Mance takes up the tale

 “If they say I’m the best Colombian footballer ever, I must have done something right,” smiles Willington Ortiz. The former striker, who now runs a football coaching school, helped América de Cali to four of their five consecutive league titles in the 1980s with a style of play he recalls as “mucho dribbling”. Yet there was something else that “Old Willy” Ortiz and the América team built around him could not do: win South America’s major club competition, the Copa Libertadores. Three successive years América marched to the final, only to shuffle back to Colombia empty-handed. Few clubs can match América’s serial failure. Valencia have a decent claim, being the only club to have lost two Champions League finals in a row without ever having won the trophy; they also chalked up three consecutive Copa del Rey final defeats in the 1970s. In England, six teams – from Newcastle (twice) to Old Etonians – have lost consecutive FA Cup finals, but all won finals on other occasions.

The truth is that América did not simply stumble at the final hurdle: they ran repeatedly into it, with all the grace of Tom chasing Jerry into a mousehole. “Winning the league doesn’t compensate,” remembers Ortiz. “The team was put together to win the Copa Libertadores.” 

Of course, it’s hard to feel too sorry for a team funded by a drugs gang. The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers – Gilberto and Miguel – siphoned off sizeable sums from their Cali cartel to their beloved América, aiming above all to beat Atlético Nacional, owned by another narcotraficante, Pablo Escobar. Gabriel Ochoa, the club’s coach, placed a sign reading “Objective: Tokyo” in the dressing room, referring to the location of the Intercontinental Cup final, in which the Copa Libertadores winners would play against the European champions.

Having turned professional in 1948, América experienced three decades of failure before the Rodríguez family became involved. They quickly acquired a world-class team with their new funding, including Ortiz – bought from city rivals Deportivo Cali – Peru World Cup stars Guillermo La Rosa and César Cueto, Paraguayan striker Roberto Cabañas and Argentine goalkeeper Julio César Falcioni.

Often playing with three strikers and two attacking midfielders, América won their first national league title in 1979 and followed it with five more in a row from 1982 to 1986. Over a lunch in 1979 Miguel Rodríguez is said to have offered Diego Maradona (then aged 20 and at Argentinos Juniors) $3 million with $500,000 up front to play the last six months of the season for the club. Maradona apparently accepted, only for his manager to reject the deal a couple of weeks later, saying that a contract had already been signed with Barcelona.

The victories came before public sentiment swung heavily against the drug trade: the narcos’ upwards mobility was regarded as a picaresque success story. And, by investing in a working-class club such as América, the Rodríguezes became local heroes. It took a couple of years for América to repeat their national success on the continental stage. Then, in 1985, they reached the Libertadores final against Argentinos Juniors. The teams traded 1-0 victories in the first two legs. The play-off went to penalties, where the goalkeeper Falcioni was down to take the fifth penalty. At the moment of truth, with Juniors leading 5-4, he passed the responsibility to the 20-year-old striker Antony de Avila. The tiny De Avila – known as The Smurf – promptly missed.

The defeat didn’t shock América’s fans. Nor did the result of the final the following year. Even with the arrival of Cabañas, the team weren’t favourites against Boca Juniors, who won the first leg 2-1 in Cali and held out comfortably 1-0 in Buenos Aires. “The really hard blow,” says Alvaro Guerrero, América’s sporting director, “came on October 31, 1987.” That was the date of the play-off against Peñarol. América had won 2-0 in Colombia, and lost 2-1 in Uruguay. With goal difference only counting at the end of the third match, a draw in the play-off in Chile would have been enough.

But the omens were not good. Technical problems with the team plane delayed the arrival. “At the time there was talk about sabotage,” Ochoa remembers. “We couldn’t find a hotel, so we spent nearly the whole day in the airport.” Once on the pitch, América appeared to put their travel-­weariness behind them. “We had two or three really clear chances,” the coach adds.

Argentine star Ricardo Gareca went off injured, and Cabañas was sent off. “Instead of keeping the ball by putting on [local hero] Alex Escobar to accompany Willington Ortiz, Ochoa put on the defender Enrique Simón Esterilla – who was very tall and very bad – to try to contain Peñarol,” says the América-supporting writer Umberto Valverde. “Obviously, he made a total mistake: Esterilla didn’t contain Peñarol, instead they started attacking like an avalanche.”

With 30 seconds of injury time left, the América players appealed for a foul on Víctor Luna. The referee waved play on. After some desperate head tennis, the 19-year-old Diego Aguirre gathered the ball calmly on the edge of the area and shot past Falcioni into the far corner. The stadium erupted. Recalling the moment, Alvaro Guerrero appears at a loss – like Brazilians do when remembering the 1950 World Cup defeat against Uruguay. “You just stand there mute, because the cup was already in our hands,” he mutters.

Ortiz appears less affected, but no wiser. “I don’t have an explanation. We thought we were going to win. We played with three forwards and we still couldn’t score. After the game, everyone was asking, ‘What did we do wrong?’ We all watched the video and I guess we were just careless.” In 1988 the rules were amended, eliminating the play-off. Had the change happened a year earlier, América would have been champions over two legs.

Pablo Escobar had the last laugh. His Nacional side had been outclassed by América in domestic competitions. Yet, after América’s failures in the Copa Libertadores, Nacional became the first Colombian side to win the competition, in their first final appearance in 1989, thanks to several penalty shootout saves by René Higuita.

In personal terms, the Rodríguezes could still argue they came off rather better: they are now two years into a 30-year jail sentence; Escobar, in contrast, was shot dead by Colombian police four years after Nacional’s Copa Libertadores victory.

In 1996, América had a chance of redemption. Again they reached the final, where they faced their opposition of a decade earlier, River Plate. They won the first leg at home, with an Antony de Avila chip from the tightest of angles. Again only a draw in the second leg was needed.

Early in the match in Buenos Aires, the ball was going out for an América goal-kick. Inexplicably Oscar Córdoba – then América’s and Colombia’s first-choice goalkeeper – rushed out to clear. His attempted hoof was crossed back into the area, where, with the keeper still out of position, Hernán Crespo headed in. A second Crespo goal left América once again as bridesmaids.

“At the time there was no chance to reflect before the next game,” Córdoba says. “Only now can I think about it... I guess the thing I’ve most learnt in my career was to save the ones that are going in and to leave the ones that aren’t.” Córdoba later won the Copa Libertadores twice with Boca Juniors. “Fate gave me the chance of a rematch,” he says. Fate’s generosity did not extend to De Avila, the man whose penalty miss lost the 1985 final. Having broken América’s scoring and appearances records, he moved to Barcelona of Ecuador. There he lost his fifth Copa Libertadores final.

In 2002, minnows Once Caldas became the second Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores. “I’ve got nothing against Nacional or Caldas,” Willington Ortiz says. “But our team was better than both of them. And you ask yourself, ‘Is it luck? Is it destiny? What is football like?’”

Today América have returned to the doldrums. Whereas the Rodríguez Orejuelas’ involvement in the club once meant wealth, it now means relative poverty. The Clinton administration placed the club on a list of those involved with drug-trafficking, meaning that any company that deals with them is prohibited from doing business in the USA. “It has killed us economically,” says Diego Hilarión, the leader of a fans-cum-hooligans grouping.

“It’s hard to talk about winning the Copa Libertadores when at the moment we’re not even in it,” reflects the normally optimistic Guerrero. Hilarión has a solution. “The [Rodríguez] family has to go,” he says, complaining of poor management. “In América there are going to be changes, because the fans have a lot of influence.” Having come so close to winning the Libertadores thanks to the Rodríguezes, América’s fans are apparently prepared to pick a potentially ­foolhardy fight to get rid of them.

From WSC 261 November 2008

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